I’ll never forget where I was when the first plane hit the World Trade Center: in a classroom at my high school in Brunswick, Georgia, a few feet away from a redheaded boy named Travis McMichael. Our paths rarely crossed outside of Spanish class. I was a bookish Black cheerleader, and he was a white boy who donned camouflage and shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag. I never imagined that 20 years later, McMichael would be the defendant at an unforgettable trial alongside his father, Greg, and neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan.
On the afternoon of Nov. 24, I woke up from a nap to a phone notification reporting that McMichael had been found guilty on all nine counts for murdering 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who went to school with my little brother. His two accomplices were found guilty of nearly all their charges.
I immediately took to social media to celebrate this historic moment happening in my hometown, but my mood was tempered when I remembered the verdict is a small step toward the racial justice Brunswick-Glynn County desperately needs. The McMichaels and Bryan have yet to stand trial for their federal hate crime charges, and Jackie Johnson, the recently indicted former district attorney who chose not to arrest the men for more than two months, still hasn’t been brought to justice. Furthermore, Black folks there are still in danger of being harassed and assaulted for merely existing.
Since February 2020, when Arbery’s jog through a neighborhood in the outskirts of Brunswick ended with him being chased, shot, and killed by white vigilantes, community organizers in Glynn have banded together to seek justice for Arbery and other residents of color.
Shortly after Arbery’s murder, Shemeka Frazier-Sorrells, a strategic consultant for Casey Family Programs, became a co-founder of A Better Glynn (ABG), an organization focused on civic and community engagement, social justice policy and advocacy, and training and leadership development. Frazier-Sorrells and four other local Black activists formed the organization to confront the interconnected systems that contributed to Arbery’s murder and its subsequent cover-up by local public officials.
The McMichaels-Bryan trial verdict came out while ABG members were cleaning up after their second annual Collard Green Caucus, where they engaged voters about the upcoming mayoral runoff while providing families with collard greens, sides, and a hot meal.
“You could feel the tension in the air … We were rightfully nervous,” Frazier-Sorrells said. “All kinds of things go through your mind: ‘Is this going to be an opportunity where we can see this justice system work for us, or is this going to be another verdict like we saw the week before with Kyle Rittenhouse?’ We cried out in jubilee when the verdict was read.”
Tears flowed because a just verdict had been far from guaranteed, especially given the racial composition of the jury: 11 white people and one Black person in a county that’s 27% Black.
Efforts to address systemic inequities in Brunswick
Racial disparities run deep in Glynn. You have Brunswick, a majority-Black town where 35% of the population lives in poverty, and then you have majority-white St. Simons Island across the causeway, where the median home price is more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Four of the most chemically toxic sites in the country, called Superfund sites, are located in Brunswick, and they’re all in Black neighborhoods.
Historically, the topic of race has been politely swept under the rug in Glynn, even though a Confederate monument stands in downtown Brunswick to this day (at the request of a private citizen, it was covered in a plastic shroud during the trial). A myth persists in Glynn that everyone is treated equally and that racially motivated violence is an anomaly, yet the numbers say otherwise: Between 2018 and 2020, 77% of “suspicious persons” calls to 911 in the county came from majority-white neighborhoods, according to an investigation at The Current.
“Black folks are considered lower class here,” Frazier-Sorrells said. “Some of that is because of the poverty that exists and the type of employment that exists … We believe that that sort of mentality aided in the belief that Ahmaud’s life was less than.”
Sorrells says ABG infuses equity into local conversations about the criminal legal system, voting, employment, housing, and education. They’re working to transform their community into one where being Black and exercising in a white neighborhood isn’t punishable by death.
One of ABG’s goals is to educate residents on how to hold public officials accountable. They held virtual information sessions on Georgia citizens’ arrest law, which was successfully repealed earlier this year, preventing Arbery’s murderers from using it as a defense during their trial. After submitting open records requests, they also shared information with the public that shed light on details regarding the murder, such as the attending officers’ failure to render first aid at the crime scene.
ABG also facilitated an email campaign where citizens asked their county commissioners to establish a citizens review board (CRB) for the Glynn County Police Department (GCPD). In November 2020, Community First Planning Commission (CFPC), a local network of 21 churches formed over a decade ago in response to a community listening campaign, submitted a proposal to the county commission to adopt a Citizens Review Board (CRB).
“The CRB would be composed of appointed and elected community members who are going to work to make sure there’s transparency with complaints in the GCPD. We’re going to work with the Brunswick Police Department as well. We’re working on that to intervene in abuses of police power,” said pastor Craig Campbell, CFPC’s chairperson.
Campbell, a senior pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Brunswick who knows Arbery’s family, said local clergy have been breaking bread together to begin a truth telling and racial reconciliation process. He and other CFPC leaders were among the hundreds of pastors who prayed with the family at the courthouse during the McMichaels-Bryan trial.
“We were praying for justice, we were praying for healing, not only for the family of Ahmaud Arbery but for other families that are affected in our community,” Campbell said.
CFPC was part of the coalition that fought to repeal Georgia’s citizens’ arrest law. Many of the problems related to the handling of Arbery’s murder originated in the county DA’s office, so the group is also working with the current DA to start a citizens’ council that would help build trust between the office and the Black community.
“We’re fighting to change the systemic racism that impacts African American residents of Glynn County and to give voice to those closest to problems of economic, racial, and social injustice, working with local, state, and national institutions,” Campbell said.
Both CFPC and ABG are part of an effort to open the Justice Center, a one-stop shop for residents dealing with the consequences of racism slated to launch next year, in a building that once served as Brunswick’s Black high school. Their organizations will be housed there alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, Georgia Legal Services, JUST Georgia, and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The McMichaels-Bryan trial is over, but Frazier-Sorrells and Campbell—who are cousins—cited a laundry list of racial justice issues in Glynn that still need to be addressed. Besides accountability, transparency, and oversight in the criminal legal system, they named increasing upward mobility and economic opportunities for Black people, developing leaders to run in uncontested elections, and environmental justice.
They also both mentioned the importance of engaging youth. Recently, Frazier-Sorrells canvassed neighborhoods on the south side of Brunswick with students from the Social Justice Club at my alma mater, Brunswick High School. Before then, some of the students had never seen that side of town, nor the Confederate monument the city commission recently voted to remove, thanks to the work of local organizers (more legalities have to be sorted out before it’s removed).
We didn’t talk about social justice when I was in high school. It feels good to know there’s been progress since then. The community must continue pulling the veil off of systemic and institutionalized racism to ensure it never produces another tragedy like the murder of Arbery.